Having grown up in New Jersey, USA, “nature” used to be synonymous with “beach.” In the suburbs littered with big box stores where I spent my younger years, cushioned in between the first (New York) and fourth (Philadelphia) largest US cities, the people I knew retreated to a commercialized version of sand and sea when they needed an escape.
When I lived in New York City, my standard for “nature” was simply a fresh-enough breeze, one not polluted by car exhaust or garbage. Occasionally, I would make a trip to Central Park, which provided a reprieve if not for the hot dog carts and shadows of the skyscrapers.
During my time living in UAE, my definition of “nature” evolved to “desert.” The desert is beautiful, yes, but oftentimes it was too stifling, the heat just too oppressive, to take in its majesty for more than 10 minutes if not from behind the glass pane of an air-conditioned car.
Having grown accustomed to adulterated nature well into my 30s, it was perhaps only a matter of timing before I outgrew the counterfeits and felt the call for something purer. That call came in 2020, at the height of the COVID lockdown when, like so many, I could not keep my restlessness at bay. Looking out my condo windows onto yet another condo window, I felt the urge to drive west, to the mountains. My own mini manifest destiny moment.
I took a day trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and experienced its simultaneous simplicity and vastness at once. I vowed to return.
Harper’s Ferry is a gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, part of America’s storied Appalachia region. Even though the heart of the Shenandoah Valley is relatively close (approximately 350 miles away from the heart of New York City, and a short two-hour drive from my home) to the Northeast, it might as well require a passport. Everything from the lush topography to the twang of indigenous bluegrass music feels foreign to those just passing through.
While the Shenandoah Mountains have been memorialized by John Denver and countless writers, including the scriptwriters of The Revenant, they must be taken in firsthand. Pictures do not do justice to the endless waves of mountains lined with blankets of pine, glossed over by rolling fog and peppered with the occasional brook or stream. And unlike Central Park or the Jersey Shore, the mountains are boundless; there is no artificial marker, no grid system or boardwalk boundary, to cut off the mountains’ expanse.
Perhaps the poignancy of these particular mountains adds to their overwhelming depth. The Shenandoah Valley was the backdrop for perhaps the most pivotal time in this country’s history, the Civil War. Driving through counties such as Page and Luray, the streets are lined with memorial markers of significant battles. You almost cannot help but look at the present-day mountains and see soldiers marching in heavy cotton uniforms carrying bayonets against them.
Odds are, the locals who I encountered during my most recent trip to the Valley are from families who have been there for generations. I wonder if they take the awesomeness of the mountains, the allure of them to an outsider, for granted, as I do, with New York City having grown up a stone’s throw away.
For many weeks a year, namely the summer and ski season, the locals share the Shenandoah with the rest of us. In September, I borrowed Lake Laura from them for an afternoon, paddleboarding with the mountains in my view, and hiked a rocky, winding trail within the George Washington National Forest. I enjoyed locally made wine and local, grass-fed steak, toured caverns that have been on this earth for millions of years, and peacefully slept in a cabin far from streetlights and sirens.
While I do not see my life relocating to the Valley anytime soon, I am very thankful to have it in my extended backyard. Clearly, my being had simply been starved of the mountains for too long. I needed to make up for lost time and redefine my meaning of “nature.”